The expansion of the Bal Harbour Shops, a much-revised plan that had been in the works for more than a decade, won final approval from the Village Council late Tuesday, setting in motion a massive construction project that is expected to take eight years.
The 4-1 vote in favor of the expansion was not a surprise. The council gave preliminary approval to the zoning changes and a development agreement on April 26 on the same 4-1 vote, with councilwoman Patricia Cohen casting the lone opposing vote both times.
“This vote was why I joined the council,” said Mayor Gabriel Groisman, who was elected in 2014. “I knew it was an important decision I needed to be a part of. What’s best for Bal Harbour is what’s best for me, and if it’s good for the shops then it’s good for us. Now we have to pray we made the right decision and that it gets implemented in the right way.”
Matthew Whitman Lazenby of Whitman Family Development, owner of the Shops, said: “I think we came in tonight confident only because we know better than anybody that this is what the people wanted. We are thrilled that the council agreed.”
But the most prominent opponent of the expansion — Saks Fifth Avenue, the Shops’ largest tenant — may continue to fight it.
Saks representatives have argued that the retooled mall will rely too much on valet parking — up to 58 percent of the center’s parking will be valet — and that a rearranged loading dock will create logistical and traffic problems.
Darrell Payne, attorney for Saks, told the Miami Herald the store will consider taking legal actions or even vacating the shopping center.
“Saks will consider all options,” Payne said after Tuesday’s vote “Everything will be on the table.”
The development agreement with Whitman Family Development includes benefits to the town such as land and money for a new municipal building. The value of the public benefits package negotiated by the village administration is estimated to be worth $100 to $120 million.
More than 100 residents lined up to speak during the five-hour meeting, which finished up early Wednesday. The room was almost evenly split between residents opposed to and in favor of the expansion plan, many eager to speak during the public hearing.
The 340,000 square foot expansion, all on land currently owned by the Shops, required zoning approvals by the village before it could proceed.
Erwin Shay echoed dozens of residents who said traffic would choke arterial roads for years, bring endless dust and noise that will “steal residents’ peace.”
In 1929, the site of what is now Bal Harbour shops was a prisoner-of-war camp that held German soldiers, he said. “Now I will be a prisoner of ‘Bal morale’ because of the traffic and congestion.”
Jean Rosenfield, , a former Bal Harbour mayor and longtime public school educator, contended that “change is a good thing,” saying that the expansion would stimulate economic growth and raise property values.
“What I’ve learned is that the young people want change on the daily basis,” Rosenfield said. “They do not want things to remain the same things. Change is never easy.”
The final version of the expansion plan incorporates a few changes discussed before the initial vote of approval April 26, including additional money for a new bayfront park near the current Village Hall and an agreement that the property currently leased by SunTrust and being given to the city would be used for a municipal purpose when the lease with the bank ends.
Other changes: The Shops will pay for and maintain landscaping along a 20-foot wall that will be built to limit construction noise, and will pay for off-duty police officers to guard the mall during the years-long construction project.
“Personally this is very fulfilling,” said John Shubin, an attorney for the project. “The next steps are to address some of the issues that are still on the table like construction hours and getting the architect moving forward on securing building permits and starting construction by the end of the year.”
The Whitmans have sought to expand the upscale mall for years. Their quest to add more retail space ramped up in 2015, when the family company submitted a formal proposal to the village. It included a controversial land swap involving the municipal building, which required a public vote.
The plan did not even reach the voters; it failed to pass a council vote in April 2016. The vote came in the wake of a public spat between the Shops and activists who were angered when the mall’s owners bought and demolished the Church by the Sea, a 1940s building that some residents, including church members, wanted to save. The property had been sold to the Whitmans, who razed the building in December 2015 to make way for expansion.
After a few more false starts, the Shops worked with village officials to craft the current proposal, which was first made public earlier this year.